LA VERNE -- When Joe Rivera saw the white light, he thought he was dead.
And 35 years later, recounting the midair collision of two military helicopters over the Marine Air Station in Tustin at 7:20 p.m. Feb. 10, 1981, he remembered being aflame, his back broken and helicopter parts pinning him down as he hung upside down.
Christian, his 19-year-old son, sat quietly across from Rivera on Monday. Richard Villescas, Joe's brother-in-law and best friend, slipped onto the sofa beside Rivera and gently rubbed his back as the 56-year-old former Marine hesitated over painful memories.
"It's time," Villescas said, looking around at loved ones who'd gathered at the Rivera family home to emotionally fortify the man they called "humble, heroic, generous and kind."
It was the first time in 35 years that Rivera talked about the 1981 crash that killed six colleagues and almost claimed his life, the grueling and painful treatment and rehabilitative therapy he endured for years afterward and the spiritual faith and people he said repeatedly saved and sustained him.
Six Marines died in what Rivera described as a "horrific" crash between a CH-53 Sea Stallion and a CH-46 Sea Knight within 20 minutes of the Sea Stallion's takeoff. It would be hours after the crash before Rivera realized the chopper had been hit by another chopper flying 150 feet below its glide path. The glide path, Rivera explained, is the altitude the helicopter maintains when descending to land.
Later investigation determined it was Sea Knight pilot error that caused the crash.
All Rivera thought immediately after regaining consciousness, dangling upside down, covered in flames and with no escape yet visible was, this was the end.
"You know that cat and his lives? Well, I'm him, and I've used up eight of those nine lives," Rivera said.
Then 21 and a lance corporal, Rivera wasn't supposed to be on the Sea Stallion helicopter with the crew carrying a 10,000-pound cement block external load to practice flying, balancing and transporting cargo. He had just returned from leave and was assigned to night crew. Wanting more flight hours with an eye toward becoming a crew chief, Rivera agreed to trade places with another lance corporal.
"We didn't see it coming. Cpl. (Gregory) Pennington was in the hell hole in the belly of the helicopter, looking down at the external load. I was up front with the pilot clearing him for a left-hand bank. I could see the beautiful night sky and stars. Then all hell broke loose," Rivera said, pausing to clear his throat. "It felt like a freight train hit us.
"We didn't know we'd been hit by another helicopter. We thought we had thrown a tail or main rotor when we started spinning," he said.
A gunner's belt he was wearing prevented him from being thrown from the plane, but the window beside him blew out and jerked him outside where he literally hung until he managed to lay down in a troop seat. He saw the back of the helicopter "lit up in flames and Pennington swaying as he tried to walk toward me. I reached out and tried to grab him, but I was pinned to the helicopter. I never saw Pennington again.
"The last thing I saw was the white light. I thought I was dead," he said, his voice quivering. He stopped talking for several minutes. The details of his fellow Marines' deaths were gory: Pennington had been pinned beneath an engine and burned to death, and the chopper's spinning-out-of-control rotor blades had decapitated his pilot and co-pilot.
Rivera's flight suit was doused with fuel, and he was on fire. Although in shock and feeling no pain at that point, he started patting himself, hoping his fire-protective gloves would hold together long enough to extinguish the fire engulfing his body.
"The entire back of the helicopter was in flames. My side was crushed and the engine blocked the window. The only way out was a small opening. I crawled out on my hands and knees, falling into a cabbage field and getting covered in mud."
Calmed by his family's presence, Rivera continued.
"I crawled 20 or 25 feet and yelled for help," he said.
Help came quickly because "luckily" the crash had happened over the base, he said. That help almost killed him when rescuers, unable to see the mud-covered Marine on the ground, almost rolled over him with emergency vehicles. Rivera's injuries -- third-degree burns to the bone on his legs, thighs and lower buttocks, broken back, fractured pelvis, both knees injured and the anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage torn and broken left leg -- were so severe he was taken to Long Beach Naval Hospital instead of the nearby El Toro Marine base hospital.
The numbness and shock lifted when he was told six Marines had died.
He endured seven skin-graft surgeries and two knee surgeries, experienced extreme pain, having his legs scrubbed raw with wire brushes to remove dead, charred skin and gangrenous tissue. He screamed through the misery of having five catheters inserted into him.
"I've been in three auto accidents, been shot, stabbed and survived a helicopter crash and two near-crashes, but it took two nurses' assistants, two nurses and a doctor to hold me down to insert those catheters. I almost levitated off that bed with the pain," Rivera said.
He remained in the Marines, undergoing annual evaluations to remain on active duty, until honorably discharged as a sergeant in July 1992. Rivera completed an associate degree in police science at Rio Hondo College, worked in private security for Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities, served as a West Covina patrol policeman from 1994 to 2012 and then became a jailer for the West Covina Police Department.
Rivera joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 19 to pursue his dream of flying. Besides the February 1981 helicopter crash, he also survived two near-crashes over the Sea of Japan and over the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa.
His post-traumatic stress disorder eventually became so severe he no longer flies, not even commercial flights. However, Rivera remains a man of faith.
"I should have been dead seven or eight times, but God left me here because he wanted to use me for something special. I can give my testimony to others and let people know if God will do this for me, he can work miracles for you, too," Rivera said.